I enjoyed the 2009 Crime & Justice Festival even more than last year’s. The crowds were bigger, the venue warmer, and it helped not being jet-lagged for the duration. I was facilitating panels rather than being a panelist this year, and I enjoyed that, too. Even got complimented on my chairing.
The first of my Sunday sessions brought together Garry Disher, described as ‘The Master’ on the blurb of his latest novel but whom I introduced as the ‘Archbishop of Australian crime fiction’ in honour of the Convent setting, Fiona McIntosh (‘Mother Superior’) and Nick Gadd (Acolyte like myself) to discuss setting the scene in crime fiction.
Garry described his interest in the (changing) demographics and local politics of his settings as much as the physical locations. This is evident in the most recent of his Challis Destry novels, the compelling Blood Moon, which I read in the lead-up to the festival. But his comments during our session fired my interest in reading his non-crime books, such as The Stencil Man and The Sunken Road–notwithstanding his comment that ‘all fiction is crime fiction’ in a sense because it usually involves secrets, betrayals, cruelty, etc. Not sure what I think of that. Need to give it some more thought.
Garry sets his books close to home, whilst Fiona and I seek out exotic settings that enable us to indulge our love of travel. Most of us had stories inspired by settings: Garry’s Wyatt novel Port Vila Blues was inspired by a trip to Vanuatu; my novel Behind the Night Bazaar was inspired by a visit to the bars behind Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar, and Fiona doesn’t start writing the next Jack Hawksworth story before she’s figured out which part of London to set it in. But Nick described the experience of trying to set a story in a certain time and place–in this case, 1920s France–that didn’t work. His wonderful debut novel Ghostlines ended up being set in Yarraville. (For Nick’s take on the session, see here).
Asked where they would like to set a crime novel, Garry nominated a corporate boardroom in an effort to redress an imbalance as crime fiction seldom deals with white collar crime, despite its devastating impact on Australian society. At the same time, Garry was least likely to set a novel in a confined institutional setting, which he deemed too claustrophobic for him as a writer. Fiona is keen to set a novel in Paris (can’t blame her for that), and I know Nick is exploring commune life in rural Victoria in his next novel. As for me, Cambodia is about my only no-go zone, but that’s for reasons of family harmony (my partner Andrew Nette is setting his crime novels there), not because it isn’t a brilliant setting. I’m planning to set my third novel in a very beautiful part of Thailand in a shameless bid to spend more time there.
Re: exotic settings, Nick comments in his blog “I’d be worried, if I went off to a place and took copious notes, that when I came home I’d be cramming those details into the book for the sake of it.” I’m currently editing the fourth draft of my second book, and I admit one of my challenges is weed out the travelogue. But that’s not enough to put me off.
I interviewed Nick again later in the day, together with Robert Sims, in a panel on ‘New Voices’. I’d met the two of them over coffee in the weeks preceding the Festival and was interested to learn that both had near misses–or ‘near hits’–where publishers almost accepted their work then changed their minds. In Nick’s case, he wasn’t prepared to remove the supernatural element from his novel–remembering this is a book called Ghostlines–which lost him a publishing contract but ultimately won him the 2007 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. In Robert’s case, he rolled with the punches and went on to secure a two book deal with Allen & Unwin for completely different books. I sincerely respect Nick and Robert for their resilience, and both were a pleasure to interview.
One bonus of being a chair at this year’s Festival was I got to read some terrific books as preparation. I’ve mentioned Blood Moon and Ghostlines; and Fiona’s Bye Bye Baby actually made me miss my tram stop one night last week. Robert’s second novel Tropic of Death is now at the top of my reading pile.
The events sponsored by Sisters in Crime were a welcome addition to the Crime & Justice Festival program, especially the ‘Dicks versus Dames’ debate on the Saturday afternoon. Amongst the memorable moments, true crime author and Year 8 teacher Vikki Petraitis quoted her student Elliot on the subject of whether men or women were better at solving crimes: ‘Well, Miss, men would be better if they had to, like, run into a room and solve a crime. But if there was any thinking involved, then women would be better at it.’
Despite Robert Gott’s assertion that men make better PIs than women because they find it easier to piss into a plastic bottle during long stake-outs (yes, there was some high-level academic arguments being bandied about), I found Vikki’s point about women’s superior multi-tasking skills more convincing: ‘Women can talk and do gumshoe.’
Sadly, not even women can blog and edit their novel at the same time. So on that note…